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Explosions hit Gaza, UN chief arrives for truce talks

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Israeli troops edged closer to the heart of Gaza City on Wednesday morning and international organisations expressed growing concern about the plight of children trapped in the offensive.

As the assault against Hamas militants entered its 19th day, the Palestinian death toll rose to 971, Gaza’s Health Ministry said, counting about 400 women and children among those killed.

Israel says 10 Israeli soldiers and three civilians hit by Hamas rockets fired across the border have been killed.

Sporadic explosions, machinegun fire and the wail of ambulances pierced the night after Israel’s senior general said more work lay ahead for his troops in their stated mission of stopping the Hamas rocket attacks.

The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visited the densely-populated Palestinian enclave on Tuesday and said what he saw was shocking. ”It is unacceptable to see so many wounded people. Their lives must be spared and the security of those who care for them guaranteed.” ICRC president Jakob Kellenberger said.

He urged both sides to spare civilians and let aid workers do their work.

”Injured people cannot wait for days, or even for hours, before being treated. The work of medical personnel must be respected and this is not negotiable,” he said.

The United Nations childrens’ rights body said the impact of the conflict on children was devastating.

”Hundreds of children have been killed or injured, many seriously. Many others have lost their loved ones,” the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child said in a statement.

Conventions on protecting children has been blatantly violated, it said, singling out the Israeli shelling of a UN school in a refugee camp which killed about 30 people.

The chief UN aid official for Gaza appealed to the international community to protect Gaza’s civilians, saying nowhere in the territory of 1,5-million people was safe any longer with the conflict becoming ”a test of our humanity”.

”All the people, the first thing they say to me and the last thing they say to me is ‘Please, we need protection, nowhere is safe,” John Ging, director of operations for the UN Relief and Works Agency, told reporters in Geneva by videolink.

UN chief on peace mission
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was due to arrive in the region on Wednesday for talks with leaders in Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Syria aimed at ending the bloodshed. He has indicated he will have no direct contact with Hamas.

UN spokesperson Michele Montas said Ban would ”demand that urgent humanitarian assistance be provided without restriction to those in need”.

In Cairo, a Hamas delegation resumed talks on a ceasefire plan proposed by Egypt, which borders the Gaza Strip and Israel and has made peace with the Jewish state.

On Tuesday, Israeli aircraft attacked 60 targets, including tunnels used by militants to bring arms across the border from Egypt. Two rockets hit Beersheba in southern Israel without causing casualties.

Explosions and heavy machinegun fire echoed across Gaza, a city of 500 000, after Israeli tanks moved nearer to its densely populated downtown area but did not enter, residents said.

Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi, chief of staff of Israel’s armed forces, said Israeli aircraft had carried out more than 2 300 strikes since the offensive — Israel’s deadliest against Palestinians in decades — began on December 27.

”We have achieved a lot in hitting Hamas and its infrastructure, its rule and its armed wing, but there is still work ahead,” Ashkenazi told a parliamentary committee.

Human rights groups have reported shortages of vital supplies, including water, in the Gaza Strip. A fuel shortage has brought frequent power blackouts.

Israel has permitted almost daily truck shipments of food and medicine. But Human Rights Watch said Israel’s daily three hour break in attacks to facilitate the supply of humanitarian aid to Gazans was ”woefully insufficient”.

Urban warfare
Political sources said Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni decided late on Monday against ordering troops in the next two or three days to engage in all-out urban warfare.

Opening a ”phase three” of the offensive would likely complicate truce efforts, lead to intense street fighting and could cause heavy casualties on both sides, a politically risky move less than a month before Israel’s parliamentary election.

Barak said in broadcast remarks that Israel had ”respectfully” heard Ban’s appeal and was monitoring Egypt’s ceasefire mediation but it would continue to hit Hamas while diplomatic efforts were under way.

Hamas says Israel must pull back all its troops under a ceasefire and end the blockade of the Gaza Strip that it tightened after the group seized the coastal enclave from forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007.

Israel has rebuffed as ”unworkable” a UN Security Council ceasefire resolution last week and said a truce must ensure Hamas cannot rearm through tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border. – Reuters

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